Taste Test: bevo
Seventy Roosevelt Highway in Colchester has had a strange few years. Since longtime tenant Junior’s Italian moved around the block in 2007, the space has played host to the promising but short-lived Big Chile Republic, then to a VFW post. All the while, local diners have wished for a stable business worthy of filling Junior’s shoes.
Bevo may well be that establishment. Aaron and Kathleen Stine were just looking for a kitchen for their catering business of the same name when they came across this spot and decided to turn it into a restaurant. Since the April opening of bevo — lowercase intentional — they’ve worked at making it a worthy extension of the catering company whose slogan is “Food and bar catering for the epicure.”
With intense blue walls lined with big, round mirrors, the main dining room evokes the party atmosphere you might expect at one of bevo’s off-site events. In the next room, guests dine, drink and watch the Food Network on a TV at the bar. The full bar serves up an array of cocktails, ranging from the sophisticated to a scorpion bowl for two. There are lots of local beers, too.
A range of starters adds to the fun — and makes it difficult to decide which finger foods to choose. On my first trip last week, my dining partner and I were enticed by the crispy fried cheddar cheese and its promise of truffle honey. Like most of bevo’s small plates, the dish arrived in a white, angled bowl that made it look like a work of minimalist art.
The cheese itself was breaded and fried into miniature cylinders that resembled Tater Tots. Mild cheddar spilled from inside at first bite, gooey but not too messy. I was hoping the mess would be in the honey, but this was disappointingly sparse, as was the only occasional taste of truffle oil. Some pieces had all three flavors working together; some did not. When they did team up, it was rare alchemy.
The Misty Knoll Farms smoky chicken wings lived up to their name. The large helping of meaty wings, heavy on my preferred drumettes, tasted fresh from a barbecue competition. Strong smoke played well against the spice of the sticky, Asian-style glaze that lightly and evenly coated each wing. Chopped herbs added éclat, as did a refreshingly tangy blue cheese dip.
My friend and I asked to split the $4.95 chopped garden side salad. To our surprise, it came in two artistic-looking bowls with homemade sesame and cilantro-mint vinaigrettes for us to try. Both dressings were good but lacked pop. A little more acid might have been in order, especially for the cilantro and mint, which should have been an ultra-bright combination.
The salad itself barely needed the help. On a base of chopped lettuce, the juicy tomatoes and celery slices — an unconventional addition — stole the show. The homemade croutons tasted like garlic bread without the grease.
The entrées were big enough to leave us full and carrying home doggie bags. This was something of a feat, given the low prices and plentiful local ingredients.
Both came into play with the seared Nitty Gritty polenta cake. Just $12.95, the stack of food included more fiddleheads than I’ve ever seen on a single plate. They were cooked to perfection: yielding but not too soft. The whole plate was sprinkled with umbrella-shaped purple flowers that our server said were onion blossoms — this confirmed on first scallion-like bite. Chunks of Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery feta also dotted the dish.
All these elements adorned two extra-large triangles of baked polenta sitting in what the menu described as a smoky, housemade tomato sauce. Overall, the visually arresting dish had the potential to be a winner, but didn’t quite make it. Like the salad dressings, the tomato sauce was underseasoned and just didn’t stand out, despite its appealing description. The polenta cakes were dry and somewhat crumbly. Maybe this was a bad night for the dish; if I try it again, I’ll hope it surpasses the sum of its promising parts.
The Cuban pork special was smoking out front on the hot evening when we ordered it. The meat arrived at our table with a sexy, caramelized crust. We received the end piece, but the fatty white meat therein was sufficiently juicy. It came with a single large tortilla that my friend and I tore in two, plus finely chopped shreds of red cabbage and tender, lightly spiced black beans. Our server forgot the side of mango sour cream we had eagerly anticipated, but brought it posthaste when we reminded her.
The cream tasted somewhat fruity, but not quite strong enough to identify as mango. Overall, this plate, too, could have used bigger flavors. I feared I was detecting a theme, but our subsequent selections bucked it.
That night, we ordered a dessert of vanilla-scented doughnuts. Fried to order and dusted in powdered sugar, the hot rings melted in the mouth in a rapture of grease and sugar. A small cup of thick, ultra-dark chocolate sauce finished the night with a bang.
When reviewing a restaurant that serves lunch as well as dinner, I try to hit both meals. But the distinction is academic at bevo, which offers the same menu all day. Our extraordinarily friendly lunch server recommended the slow-roasted, free-range chicken with potato-leek gratin and locally harvested vegetables for our midday meal.
We decided to save that dish for a future trip, but were thankful for the waitress’ help. While chatty service can be annoying, getting to know her and discussing bevo’s food was a pleasure. Our service the previous night had been similarly helpful (though my dinner companion’s prior acquaintance with that waitress didn’t hurt). Bevo’s co-owner, Kathleen Stine, visited each table during both meals. At lunchtime, she carried her sleepy but popular newborn strapped to her front.
Taking our server’s advice, we started with the cheese nachos, described on the menu as “a tribute to Tortilla Flats.” I never had the storied starter at that Burlington restaurant, located for years in the building that now houses Bluebird Tavern, but we quickly realized why the nachos were beloved.
The ingenious design of these crisp, baked tortilla triangles solved the perennial nacho problem of uneven toppings. Instead of chopped ingredients, the flavor came from a thick, spicy tomato-based sauce. Add a layer of cheese, and voilà — evenly covered chips that resembled miniature pizza slices. I missed the fresh snap of tomato and jalapeños a bit, but the flavor was unbeatable.
I had to try the burger, too, in large part to see what the dusted fries were all about. The crisp, hand-cut fries come with a choice of bacon or shiitake “dust,” which I envisioned as a molecular-style powder.
The fries arrived in the same adorable mini-bucket that holds the tiny, flaky cheddar biscuits that start each meal at bevo. No dust was to be found. The manager quickly sprinkled some over the fries for us, but the chunks were decidedly larger than dust and didn’t adhere well.
The burger made up for that minor disappointment. Served in a light-but-chewy, grill-marked bun topped with a single tiny, green tomato, the Laplatte River Angus Farm patty was bursting with flavor. Nicely melted cheddar, special sauce and vegetables added bite. The patty was cooked closer to well-done than to the medium-rare I’d requested — a fact that, through juicy bites, I mentioned to the server. Though I insisted I was still thrilled with the dish, management removed it from the bill because it hadn’t arrived exactly as ordered.
The chicken-and-vegetable-kebab plate, a departure from the fatty pub fare that makes up much of the menu, was the best dish of all. The base was a bulgur salad studded with tomatoes and mint that sang of summer. A stiff little round of homemade pita sat on top, covered by two meaty skewers of chicken marinated in addictive sweet-and-sour yogurt, similar to a Mughlai reshmi kebab. Another skewer bore similarly full-flavored peppers, onions and squash. A cup of plain yogurt for dipping went mostly untouched — the skewered foods were tasty without it.
My second bevo meal ended with a pair of desserts, which our server recited with enthusiasm. The brownie sundae included thin, slightly overcrisp but warm brownies covered in ice cream, caramel sauce and hot fudge that hardened into a ganache. I would have been happy to eat the latter on its own — but then I would have missed the snappy, sugar-coated mixed nuts.
A basket of apple-cheddar fritters was not what I expected — namely, both ingredients combined in fritter form. Instead, we got separate battered and fried apple slices and cheese curds. Both were covered in powdered sugar to amplify the savory-sweet counterpoint.
While the two-month-old restaurant doesn’t have every detail perfect yet, bevo is well on track. The staffers go out of their way to make guests happy, and most will be. As Winooski grows in foodie sophistication, this restaurant is just what the area needs, whether for a greasy treat or a succulent skewer.